Betsy DeVost Education Secretary
President Trump’s controversial pick for education secretary, Betsy DeVos, may actually hold the key to revolutionizing America’s educational system. Her selection is an obvious means to accomplish Trump’s campaign promise to provide $20 billion in funding to school choice programs. The big question is how is this program likely to pan out, and what will DeVos particular vision for it be? While there is a great deal of uncertainty, a close analysis of what we know about DeVos and school choice, in general, provide some measure of hope for America’s parents and students.

The Problems of Education Today

There can be little doubt that the current system is not working well despite numerous efforts at reform. American students continue to fall behind their foreign counterparts in skills such as math and science, which are considered critical in the modern job market. One reason jobs are being shipped to Asia has nothing to do with cheaper workers and everything to do with workers that are actually more prepared to handle technology-related jobs. The reform of education in this capacity goes hand-in-hand with Trump’s vision to keep jobs in America. One very well may not work without the other.

The irony is that schools are focusing more on math and reading than ever before. They often do this in exclusion of other important subjects like art, music, physical education and even science. Many schools have become so focused on test scores linked to math and reading that they have stripped away just about every other kind of learning. Yet, they have very little to no improvement to show for it.

Major reforms such as No Child Left Behind aimed to fix low-performing schools. Most educational experts and teachers agree that NCLB was mostly an abysmal failure for schools and students. It has done little to improve scores, give parents more choice or improve overall learning. If anything, it has deepened the rift between public and private education and hurt the very students it was supposed to support by stripping funding from already struggling schools while giving parents and students no clearly attainable alternative. It also greatly exacerbated the focus on test scores as measures of school performance and massively increased government oversight of schools but in a non-effective capacity.

The School Voucher Program

It is clear from her history that DeVos’s most likely approach to school choice will be through a voucher program. These programs are a means of redirecting government educational funding and placing it in the hands of parents to do with as they choose. Parents typically have a great deal of freedom in how they use vouchers and may put them toward tuition at private, charter, online and religious schools.

The key benefit to the voucher program when it is properly implemented is that it provides real choice to parents and breaks down many of the socioeconomic barriers separating higher-performing wealthy students from lower-performing poorer students. With programs such as these, even lower-income students would have the option to attend private schools or schools that better align with their abilities and potential. This represents far greater choice than the failing school provisions under NCLB ever offered.

Considering that school vouchers are likely to be DeVos’s primary means of implementing school choice, it is worth taking a close look at how these programs have performed in the past. DeVos herself has overseen a similar program in Michigan, but its benefits were rather dubious, and many critics have pointed out that voucher programs implemented in many states have had mixed results. There is evidence that they provide benefit to lower-income students, but there is also strong evidence that students end up performing the same or worse under voucher programs.

 On the surface, this may seem like a poor appraisal of DeVos’s most likely plan, but a deeper look at the evidence shows the real reason behind much of the failure of previous voucher programs. Funding, as usual, becomes the most serious and often underrated issues. The choice under most voucher programs in the past was mostly an illusion. The vouchers did not provide enough funding to give parents access to the truly high-performing private schools. Instead, parents were stuck enrolling their students in private and charter schools that performed about the same or worse than their public school counterparts.

Most parents made this choice under a prevailing illusion that any private school is better than a public school. This is simply not the case. Each school must be assessed individually based on its enrollment, record, and philosophy.

Essentially, DeVos’s hands and vision were tied by budgetary constraints in Michigan that hurt her plan. With Trump’s support and the $20 billion of funding he has promised, it may be possible to create a voucher plan that truly gives parents the choice of schools they need to have in order to create success. If the plan is properly implemented, students will be able to attend only those schools that perform well and align to the parent’s particular beliefs or philosophy.

Decrease in Regulation

Her history also points to DeVos being a champion of less regulation in schools. As NCLB has taught us indirectly, this can be a good thing. Regulation under NCLB has increasingly led to an ultra-focus on test scores, a narrow focus on certain testable subjects and an overall decrease in the quality of education.

While schools do run the risk of failure when regulations are taken away, increased regulation doesn’t seem to be preventing failure. When deregulation is combined with choice in a sort of free-market education system, only the best schools will survive because only the best schools will get students and funds, and test scores won’t be the deciding factor.

Increased Parent Involvement

Another positive pillar of DeVos plan is increasing parent involvement in schools. This has an important indirect effect on education. One serious problem with the current system is that students themselves often see little value in school or in education. One reason for this that they don’t see their parents valuing the education or becoming involved in it.

Increased parent involvement does more than just get parents interacting with the school and teachers. It indirectly shows kids that their parents care about what happens in school and the learning that is accomplished there. This more than any other factor is likely to improvement student attitudes toward school and help improve the currently poor relationships between families and schools.

Despite a somewhat rocky history when it comes to education policy and implementation, Betsy DeVos has some good ideas for revamping the educational system. It is refreshing that a candidate is not looking just at more regulation, more testing and more of the same failed policies that have done nothing to improve education over the past decades. A system based on real learning results and real parent choice may be the key to turning around the defunct education system if Trump and DeVos can pull it off the right way.

About Betsy DeVos

Elisabeth “Betsy” DeVos was born and raised in Holland, Michigan and attended Calvin College, where she earned a bachelor’s degree business administration and political science. Since graduating, DeVos has been heavily involved in business, education, and philanthropy in Michigan and across the country. She is also a longtime member of the Michigan Republican Party, serving twice as party chair from 1996-2000 and from 2003-2005. A devout Christian, she is married to Richard “Dick” DeVos Jr., the former CEO of MLM giant Amway. They are the parents of four grown children, sons Rick and Ryan and daughters, Elissa and Andrea.

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